Define your Method
Stellar camera work comes from the process of thinking like an editor in three areas: Technique, Execution and Style. Technique is the camera to subject choreography used to capture moving images. Execution is the application of the technique, which can be accurate or compromised. Style is the consistent trademark variations on the technique by a skilled operator and defines your point of view and approach in the capture of moving images. Problems appear in the editing process if any of these points fail. What follows are some time-honored tips to ensure your technique is well choreographed, your execution is accurate and your style consistent.
Think Like an Editor
First, you have to realize that your camera is not an eye and is not nearly as sophisticated. In thinking like an editor, ask yourself what the shot that comes before and after the one you are about to capture will look like. If it’s a moving shot, will that moving shot work with a static shot or another moving shot? Standard shooting techniques will allow you to effortlessly combine a variety of shots while editing.
Frame for balance, using negative space and positive space.
In the vertical, the subject usually gets two thirds of the frame and one third for lead or negative space. In the horizontal, the "rule of thirds" will apply. Divide up the horizontal frame into thirds and put the foreground in the lower third, the subject in the middle third and the background in the upper third. Maintain a balanced shot through the execution, especially at the end, so you leave a good frame to cut on. Also, when ending a shot, try to leave something in the frame for the viewer or leave the viewer’s eye in the center of the screen.
In shooting a moving shot, begin with a static frame and then progress through a follow, pan, tilt or dolly shot.
Leave a static frame at the beginning and end of the shot for five seconds. The editor will make use of this technique when cutting a static shot against a moving shot. For example, the editor will cut into the moving shot on the static part and then let the shot progress through to the moving part. Normally, when going from moving shot to moving shot, the editor will use a dissolve, cut to a neutral shot or cutaway. Cutaways are transitional shots and are used when the master or coverage shots don’t cut together well. Shoot lots of cutaways and B-roll. They can be wide or close shots, but they are usually static, and can save your project down the road during the editing process.
Allow your subject to make clean entrances and exits.
Make sure you leave about five seconds at the beginning and end of a shot. This will allow the editor to cut cleanly from image to image, whether it’s moving or not. Also, the few extra seconds will allow enough head or tail for dissolves.
Leave about ten percent of the frame for headroom.
Some viewing screens (TV or computer) may crop your image and cut the top of your subject off. Too much or too little headroom makes for bad composition. Too much headroom is worse; it looks like you were not watching the frame.
Static shots will edit together well, as long as the subject is in the same place from shot to shot.
In post-production, the editor will want to connect shots that don’t force the eyes to bounce all over the place as they progress through the cut. To check this, editors usually put their thumb about a foot away from their eye and hold it over the subject of an image. If the subject is covered by the thumb in the next image, you have a successful "butt" edit. Again, if the static shots have subjects moving in and out of the frame; make sure they have clean exits and entrances. In an exit, the editor will cut just as the subject’s eyes (if applicable) leave the frame. The next shot will pick up the action or the next subject right where the subject exited the frame. If this is not possible because the shooter did not allow the subject to leave the frame, then it forces the editor to make a jump cut to the next shot. This is especially true if the subject of the next shot is on the other side of the frame.
Having the entrances and exits with a few extra seconds at the beginning and end of a shot will allow the viewer’s eye to settle on the center of the screen so the cutting is seamless. If the shot is designed to have the subject leave the frame entirely the editor will more than likely leave a beat or two of clear frame before cutting to the next shot. This will allow the viewer’s eye to settle before moving to the next shot. Wait at least five seconds before hitting the pause button after you call "cut." Treat entrances the same way. If you don’t have a clear frame and it comes time to cut to the next shot, you run the risk of a jump cut. The subject will appear to pop into the frame. Always direct your actors to move out of frame all the way or you will make your editor crazy. Remember: fixing it in the editing is a myth.
When you shoot make sure you have consistent frame size.
This is especially true in a two-person interview situation. In a single subject interview you can vary the frame size and use your cutaways or B-roll to make the transition from wide to medium to close up. Watch shows like 60 Minutes or Dateline and their technique, execution and style. Again, keep frame size consistent. Depending on the subject matter, cutting from a wide shot to a close up may not work and you may end up with a jump cut. Another example of using consistent frame size is a well-shot dialogue sequence. You wouldn’t record one actor in a wide shot and the other in a close-up. If you want to progress from a wide to a close-up, you need to shoot coverage. Coverage is starting in the wide shot, allowing the action to play out and then shooting the action again in a medium shot and then in a close up.
Moving shots can be a great way to give your work a strong dynamic.
They don’t call it moving pictures for nothing. While shooting moving shots, be sure to stay consistent with speed of motion. Cutting together two differently paced pans or other moving shots will force a jump cut or dissolve. Keep in mind that the most eloquent cut is the straight cut, so give the editor the choice to do that. To set your pace through a move, time the shot in a rehearsal, counting the seconds to completion. Make sure you finish the shot at the same place and time as in the rehearsal. Then shoot the shot a few more times with different speeds to give the editor choices.
Avoid zoom shots. Period.
It’s very hard to cut into and out of a zoom. During the editing process, the editor will more than likely be forced to use a dissolve to make the transition to the next shot. Zooming should be used to bring the subject into a proper frame before you hit the record button. Another reason to avoid the zoom is that a zoom compresses the image and squeezes the fore, middle and background. Use the zoom only as a stand-alone shot, not as part of a sequence. A related problem is mixing focal lengths. In other words, frame the camera in the normal position on the zoom and get closer or wider by moving the camera closer or farther away. Using the zoom to bring in the subject or open the frame may compress or fish eye the image. Mixing normal and compressed shots from the zoom will not cut together well.
Compose your shots in three dimensions.
Try to give the illusion of depth by composing with the foreground, mid-ground and background in mind. Put props or other secondary subjects in the frame so the shot looks more three dimensional. For example try a composition, branches and leaves in the foreground, the prime subject in the middle and the tree trunk in the background.
Practice the above techniques and see how they work in the editing. If you make a mistake, experiment and try to adjust your technique and execution accordingly. Mastering shooting like an editor will allow the editing to be an experience offering greater choice and creativity and make your camera work stellar!
Garret Maynard is a video and filmmaker and guest lecturer, and lives in Connecticut & Vermont.